Philomena

Evil’s good

philomenaMy mother texted me last night about Steve Coogan’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and expressed some excitement about the fact that Philomena Lee’s story is true.  I responded with equal excitement, mentioning that the film (seen by me, unseen by her) was the best thing I’ve seen Coogan do in a long time (or perhaps “ever” was the word I used).  She responded “Good” and left me hanging, but it reminded me that I actually wanted to write about this film.

Philomena is actually directed by Stephen Frears, but one must love the fact that the writer is getting so much of the attention.  Would he receive this attention if he weren’t already a beloved comic actor and celebrity?  Just let me have this moment before you answer.

The film follows the surprisingly accurate narrative of Philomena (Judi Dench), who meets disgraced Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the latter of whom is advised to write a “human interest” story to buffer his career.  He abhors the idea until he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a cocktail party.  Jane relays the recent discovery that her mother had another child when she was a teenager.  Philomena’s father, however, sent her to Sean Ross Abbey for this “sin,” and the church snatched the child away as part of a series of real-life “forced adoptions” – that is to say, the church kidnapped and sold children to wealthy Americans.  Philomena has always thought of looking for her son, Anthony, with whom she only spent about a year before he was taken.  Martin begrudgingly agrees to write the story (despite his greater interest in writing a book on Russian history), and he meets Philomena, whose Irish Catholic sensibilities do not exactly mesh with his own atheism.  Above all, he cannot understand how she could still be religious after the nightmare she went through at the hands of the church, particularly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford).

What follows is equal parts buddy comedy, road movie, and straight-played drama.  Philomena has concerns about what kind of person her son, renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, might have become after moving to America (the most dire of which is “What if he’s obese?”).  The good news is that he did relatively well for himself, becoming a senior official in the Reagan administration, but the bad news is that he died of AIDS in the ’90s.  With this discovery, Martin and Philomena become a bit closer, the unfairness of it all being that they must now hasten back to Ireland.  Luckily for his story, Martin took both “happy” and “sad” photos of Philomena in preparation for either outcome.  Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), Martin’s editor, doesn’t see a problem with anything that’s happened.

Philomena, however, decides that she wants to stay in America and meet people who knew her son.  The duo begin with Michael’s colleagues, who show Philomena photos of Michael and his “friend” Pete (Peter Hermann), but Philomena insists that she has always known that Michael was a “gay homosexual.”  She and Martin visit Pete, who inexplicably threatens to have them arrested if they do not leave his property.  Philomena talks her way into his home, however, and finds out that Michael and Pete went to Ireland years ago for the very same purpose: to meet Philomena and discover Michael’s roots.  The convent, however, claimed that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her (quite untrue, since Philomena had been visiting the convent so often that every employee knew who she was).  For Philomena, this is enough, for she’d assumed Michael had never wondered about where he came from.  They also learn that he is buried in the convent’s graveyard, where the story began, and everything comes full circle.

The tension reaches its peak during a final confrontation with the seemingly ancient Sister Hildegarde, who rolls around the convent’s private quarters, stoically waiting to die.  Martin confronts her, eager to get answers to why she would not only sell off Philomena’s child, but lie to a family for decades, adding that “If Jesus were here, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair.”  But the decision of what to do is ultimately up to Philomena.  Forgiveness has never bothered me so much.

Judi Dench does not need my approval, but she inhabits the heart of this film with a full range of every possible emotion.  Coogan complements her nicely, acting as both chauffeur and lens, but Philomena herself is aware of this lens, and will not allow Martin to color the story of her family any way he wants it just for the sake of giving the public something to get riled about.  Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane with such a confident delicateness that I was sad to see her fade into irrelevance once the adventure began, but she’s a treat when she’s on.  Hildegarde is played as a pure villain, which we must assume someone with that name and station in life could easily become, but it may have been effective to actually provide Philomena with the apology she deserves, or at the very least, to give another layer to someone who could be (and is) such an unrepentant monster.

Still waiting on an adaptation of Sixsmith’s Russian history texts.  Nope; couldn’t type that with a straight face.

Philomena (2013); written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope; based upon The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

 

 

Ruby Sparks

It’s love!  It’s magic!

As a writer, I hate movies about writing.  The writing process is always watered down and simplified to remind the viewer of creative processes with which they might be more familiar, such as visual art, acting, or music – this is not to say that these other art forms don’t have their own special challenges, methods, and struggles, but writing is endlessly interior, fiercely personal, and heavily misunderstood by those who don’t write, which makes it impossible to depict onscreen.  Additionally, writers are often portrayed as grubby, anti-social Arthur Miller lookalikes who live alone, have bizarre, often estranged parents, and who pass out over their typewriters when they have writer’s block.  Hell, even Miller was portrayed as somewhat of a parody of himself in last year’s My Week With Marilyn.  Why does this keep happening?  Because the people creating these stories about writers are partaking in an entirely different creative venue – film-making – a collaborative effort with a process infinitely disparate from that of writing prose or poetry.

On top of the technical inaccuracies, a filmmaker’s portrayal of the writing life is often laughable to writers, even successful ones; the ingenuity of it all is that the layman (i.e. 95% of moviegoers) doesn’t know the difference.  That said, take Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), the protagonist of Ruby Sparks, a fantasy/romance/dramedy, the brainchild of Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay and also co-stars as Ruby.  Calvin is in his mid-twenties, has one novel published, and is already a successful, famous, moneymaking author with his own house and swimming pool, and whose book is apparently taught in most high schools.  He is frequently referred to as a “genius” by his peers, and his favored book houses stand by to excitedly publish whatever he may come out with next.  Lavish parties are held in his honor.

Preposterous?  Yes.  But it’s not all sunshine and unicorns for Calvin.  Still bothered by the death of his father and the subsequent exeunt of his girlfriend of five years, Calvin sees a therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould!), who attempts to help by giving Calvin “writing assignments” to both alleviate his writer’s block and to help with deal with his issues.  “Can it be bad?” Calvin asks.  Rosenthal answers, “I would love it to be bad.”  This gave me the sense that Kazan was channeling one of her workshop leaders and not a therapist, but it’s an effective trigger for what happens next in the story.

Feeling a new freedom by being allowed to write “bad” prose (really?  He’s a published author and has never heard that good writing doesn’t come out right the first time?), Calvin begins writing a character study about a fictional girl named Ruby Sparks.  She is his fantasy woman, troubled but down-to-earth, who looks perfect in any style of clothing and who loves all the crap that male nerds are supposed to like (most notably zombie movies).  One morning, Calvin awakens to find Ruby herself in his kitchen eating Crispix and fixing him breakfast.  Thinking he must be hallucinating, Calvin phones Dr. Rosenthal, who doesn’t answer, and then Harry (Chris Messina), his caring older brother who shows genuine concern for Calvin but who is also stern and honest – “Women whose problems make them endearing aren’t real,” he says after reading a first draft of the Ruby story.  Harry comes over to investigate, at first accusing Calvin of hiring an actress to play one of his characters, but finally accepting the truth when Calvin types something about Ruby that instantly comes true.  Ruby, however, not only doesn’t seem to notice that she’s a fictional character under a writer’s control, but thinks she’s been in a relationship with Calvin for six months.  Calvin rolls with it.

The potential here is astronomical.  A fictional character that represents the writer’s ideals comes to life: a perfect metaphor for the writing process and what writing fiction does to a writer, how real characters become, how their lives become part of yours.  Soon, though, the relationship (as it must) begins to resemble a real relationship, which irks Calvin a bit.  Ruby doesn’t always agree with him.  Sometimes she’s too tired to have sex.  She wants to spend time with his family whereas he would rather pretend they don’t exist.  When Calvin finally breaks out the typewriter to tweak Ruby’s behavior (which yields catastrophic results), the film becomes less a metaphor and more a commentary on idealism and a cautionary tale about being controlling in a relationship.  At this point, the film’s structure becomes disappointingly formulaic: we know he will eventually tell her she’s fictional.  We know she’ll react badly.  We know he’ll write a book about it, which will be an incredible success.  We know he’ll run into Ruby again at the end and try to reignite the relationship in the wake of multiple epiphanies.  In this way, the story becomes predictable, all but abandons its metaphor and what appear to be its original intentions, and the final scene, while sweet, is actually a carbon copy of the final scene of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

The performances keep things together.  Paul Dano doesn’t get enough work in lead roles, and this one, if inserted into a more intellectually-sound movie, would be Oscar worthy.  Kazan is lustrous as Ruby, though I get the feeling she wrote a few scenes (namely one in which Calvin speed-writes to make her do a dozen different wacky things) to show off her own acting chops – not that I blame her for taking the opportunity.  Steve Coogan appears as yet another evil sleazeball, and a scene in which he attempts to seduce Ruby in a swimming pool is more mustache-twirly than anything Bane does in The Dark Knight Rises.  Antonio Banderas makes an appearance as Mort, Calvin’s stepdad, who carves furniture with a chainsaw and tries very hard to bond with the aloof Calvin (one of the film’s more inspired character relationships, despite the little time it’s given).  I was most excited to see Elliott Gould (my favorite private-eye actor) in another good role at a healthy 73 years old.

The writing life isn’t like this.  Even successful writers (that is to say, writers who have a consistent output and who are respected in the literary community; not hacks, sell-outs, and flashes-in-the-pan making a killing off of stale, derivative Y.A.) aren’t giving readings at packed theatres, likely not even writers like Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer last year for A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Additionally (and this is a problem every movie about writing has), the small bits of Calvin’s writing we actually get to hear aren’t good.  Again, the layman doesn’t know the difference and probably isn’t even giving thought to the quality of the writing (hell, the average reader doesn’t even do that), but Kazan could have set aside the self-indulgence for a moment and hired a prose writer to pen the passage of Calvin’s writing we hear at the end.  Might I also add that I could not get past Calvin’s (Kazan’s) decision to name the dog after F. Scott Fizgerald, “one of the greatest novel writers ever.”  A writer of Calvin’s apparent depth would be more likely to name a pet after a character, not an author, though Ruby’s assessment of Calvin’s naming choice adds a certain charm to the whole thing.  If you want to see what weird, reclusive writers actually name their pets, look up the name of H.P. Lovecraft’s cat.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I really enjoyed this movie.  I loved the initial concept, most of the characters, and their inspired attempts to live with each other.  Its potential and risk-taking are miles above something like The Bourne Legacy, but I tend to be harsher when something with so much pretense of intellect and promise of big payoff falls slightly short of the goal (or, in any case, what I believe its goal should be), especially when it’s so close to home.

Ruby Sparks (2012); written by Zoe Kazan; directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; starring Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

Our Idiot Brother

Comedy in B Major

In Jesse Peretz’s Our Idiot Brother, we get a triptych of beautiful women whose personal lives seem to gravitate around one guy: their brother.  This might be a good film with which to try the old gender unfairness challenge – see if you can find a scene in this movie where two or more women (with names) talk to each other about something other than a man (in this case the brother in the title) and/or something influenced by him.  Even in a film with a principally female cast, such as this one, it’s a tall order.

Our Idiot Brother is a good-hearted comedy (albeit with enough F-bombs to destroy a small country) about a sweet guy.  In Ned (Paul Rudd, looking like one of the Avett Brothers), we get perhaps the most simultaneously lovable and misunderstood character since Del Griffith.  His sisters, Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), and Liz (Emily Mortimer) have dysfunctional relationships with each other, Ned, and their mother (Shirley Knight), who drinks her pain away and seems to be the only one who cares about Ned.

At the outset of the story, Ned is entrapped by one of the evillest police officers in film history, and put in prison after inadvertently selling the officer marijuana.  When he returns home, his girlfriend, Janet (Kathryne Hahn), a hypocritical hippie (hippie-crit?), has dumped him for another guy (T.J. Miller) without telling him.  Ned is now homeless.  The story threads progress, tie together and come loose as Ned moves in with one sister after the other, attempting to help them with their problems but always messing something up due to his unbridled sensitivity.  Promiscuous Natalie’s relationship with her loving partner, Cindy (Rashida Jones) hits the rocks when the former becomes pregnant after a one-night stand; Ned must be the bearer of bad news.  Liz and her controlling husband (Steve Coogan) shield their young son from everything he loves; Ned is the only one who understands, and interferes (with the best intentions, of course).  Miranda and her nerdy roommate (Adam Scott) get along fine until Miranda scores an interview with a famous dignitary, who would much rather talk to Ned.

The film plays out in an evenly-paced, well-timed comic narrative centered around a character with a great heart, a good man who knows only how to be good.  He’s forgiving, understanding, and gives even the worst of people the benefit of the doubt (including Liz’s cheating husband).  He even feels terrible for declining a threesome when he realizes another man is involved.  Some scenes will have you cracking up, and some will give your heart a tug when you’re least expecting it (particularly a scene featuring a game of charades with Ned’s entire family).

Paul Rudd’s performance is the stuff of mystery.  Who knew he had this kind of role in him?  We know he can be a protagonist and a straight man to Steve Carell’s funny guy, but his performance in Our Idiot Brother blends these archetypes into something unique and welcome.  It’s a genuinely sweet story in a sea of gross-out comedies.  A relationship between two women is portrayed as serious, committed (mostly) and never as the butt of a joke.  There’s even a dog with an interesting name – watching a bearded Paul Rudd running through the streets of New York shouting “Willie Nelson!” as bystanders look on in befuddlement is the perfect exclamation point.

Rudd’s next role, aside from garden variety comedies, is in an adaptation of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I don’t know if I’d call it an opportunity to show us he’s prolific, but if he wanted to shake his typecasting, especially after a performance like this, I’ve no doubt he could.  I, for one, will root for him.

Our Idiot Brother (2011); written by Evgenia Peretz; directed by Jesse Peretz; starring Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, and Emily Mortimer.